House Transportation Committee Chairman Peter A. DeFazio said Thursday that the nation’s railway system had fallen into the hands of “the jackals on Wall Street,” accusing federal regulators of colluding with them.
“Wall Street is setting the terms and pressuring executives,” DeFazio (D-Ore.) said at a hearing, “and they aren’t concerned about safety. Their monthly or quarterly profits are what is watched by Wall Street. Only if there’s an absolutely catastrophic accident that bankrupts a railroad will they care about it, but short of that, they don’t give a damn.”
For more that two hours, lawmakers challenged Federal Railroad Administration head Ronald L. Batory about three-mile-long trains that block railway crossings and his decision to withdraw a proposed rule that would have mandated two-member crews on most trains.
“The evidence suggests that FRA has adopted a culture of deregulation and decreased oversight at the expense of safety and the health of employees and passengers,” Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) said at the hearing on the state of the rail workforce.
Batory responded that there is no limit on how long trains can be and no facts to support a requirement for two-member crews.
“I didn’t write the rule,” Batory said, a reference to then-FRA Administrator Joseph C. Szabo. “There is not a singular answer to the size of a train crew.”
The issue that has allowed trains as long as 3.2 miles is something known as precision scheduled railroading. Class 1 railroad earnings topped $16 billion in the first half of 2018.
“It has nothing to do with precision anything,” testified John Previsich, president of the SMART Transportation Division. “What it is is hedge fund investors moving into an industry that was well-operated, well-funded and well-maintained, and harvesting money.”
Batory told the committee that the railroad workforce had declined from 700,000 when he entered the business in 1971 to about 150,000 now.
“In 1978, we had a minimum of five people on a crew, and in some states we had six or seven,” Batory said.
That year, he said, there were 408 head-on rail collisions. Last year, he said, there were 22.
The FRA withdrew the proposed rule because it concluded that “no regulation of train crew staffing is necessary or appropriate for railroad operations to be conducted safely.” The agency banned individual states from regulating the size of train crews. At least nine states have approved laws that mandate crew size, the FRA said.
The debate over how many crew members are needed to operate a train safely is of relatively recent vintage, as railroads foresee an era when fewer crew — or none at all — might be necessary to run a train. The railroads don’t want federal regulators to step in, imposing new rules on crew requirements that could become onerous as they move closer to an era of autonomous trains.
For example, a technology called positive train control, with onboard computers and signal beacons lining track beds, is expected to virtually eliminate human error. Once that is fully operational on most lines by the end of next year, railroads may begin to reduce the number of crew in the locomotive.
Unions, however, believe there always will be a need for crew members to operative a train.
In a joint statement by Previsich and Dennis R. Pierce, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, after the FRA pulled the proposed rule, they said the decision “placed corporate profits above public safety.”
“If the ongoing grounding of the Boeing Max aircraft has taught us nothing else, FRA and the Department of Transportation should be mindful of the danger of transferring the risk of a human-factors accident from [crew members] to [a computer] programmer when autonomous technology is implemented,” they said.
Most trains run with two crew members: an engineer and a conductor. On passenger trains, often with more than one conductor, the lead conductor is in the passenger cars but remains in communication with the engineer. On freight locomotives, however, the conductor may be in the locomotive unless he or she has more-pressing duties.
In addition to an engineer and conductor, Amtrak said it uses a second engineer on routes that take six hours or longer.
The rulemaking process was begun by Szabo after 2013, when an unattended 74-car freight train carrying crude oil ran downhill and crashed in the Canadian town of Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people.
Later that year, a pair of trains collided in Casselton, N.D., causing the explosion of 476,000 gallons of crude oil and a huge cloud of smoke that caused the evacuation of the surrounding area. Although no one died, lawmakers were placated by Szabo’s promise to require two-man crews.
In deciding to revoke the proposed rule this year, the FRA concluded, “There is no direct safety connection between train crew staffing and the Lac-Megantic or Casselton accidents.”